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Violence et stratégies narratives

A Violent Need for Distance

Writing the Rift in The Children Act (Ian McEwan) and The Disappearance Boy (Neil Bartlett)
Laurent Mellet


In both Ian McEwan’s The Children Act and The Disappearance Boy by Neil Bartlett (2014), violence is first deciphered in the body contact which calls for a necessary distance between characters but also subplots, so that both protagonists and literary works might be autonomous. Such salutary distance leads to an aesthetics of the rift without which the intimate connection remains threatened. Yet the distance from the event builds up a new rift soon to be violently invested as the ideal space for illusion and “misdirection”: should the rift be visible? how can violence be inflicted upon readers or spectators with a view to making them believe? Whether the distance be in focalisation or metafiction, the rift violently makes empathy irrelevant and establishes a new narrative rhythm that reshuffles fiction and posits narration no longer as the means but as the end of writing.

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1For a few years now contemporary British fiction has attempted to strike a new balance between violence as a theme and a moral or ethical content to be interrogated, and violent experimental linguistic or narrative Postmodernism. After the “ethical turn” and its humanist agenda (see Davis and Womack), which could be construed as a reaction to Postmodernist experiments, British literature today may be finding its coherence in the way authors try to “narrativise”, or aestheticise, ethical or more generally philosophical issues so as to reflect on contemporary society and come up with narrative and literary performances of, reactions to, resistance or solutions to these issues. This is what is at the core of both Ian McEwan’s The Children Act and The Disappearance Boy by Neil Bartlett, his fourth novel after Ready to Catch him Should he Fall, Mr Clive & Mr Page and Skin Lane. McEwan is certainly the more famous of these two authors and is known for the extremely violent thrust of his early books. Nicknamed Ian Macabre (Groes 1; Wells 11, 33), McEwan is said to have less macabre and more ethical concerns now, though violence plays a major role in both characterisation and plot in The Children Act. Bartlett is primarily known in the theatre as director, writer and performer, which is to be linked to the very theme of The Disappearance Boy, with its focus on illusion and magic. In both novels violence operates in the public as in the private spheres with a view to blurring the lines between performance and intimacy, or between certainties and new experiences. More precisely, McEwan and Bartlett seem to resort to what I will call here the motif of the rift, so as to displace violence but also show how violence can be avoided, rekindled or created indeed by rifts and separation. In their respective contexts and styles, both novels interrogate how characterisation and narrative strategies can perform the logic leading from separation and distance to interdependence and connection.

2The choice of the term “rift” for this article first must be explained. One of the main theoretical frameworks for the argument will be the work by French philosopher François Jullien on what he calls l’écart, which I have decided to translate by “rift” and not “splitting”, so as to avoid any semantic but also methodological confusion, as neither psychoanalysis nor the meanings of splitting for Freud, Winnicott or Lacan, for instance, shall be at the heart of the article. In L’Écart et l’entre, Jullien writes: “tandis que la différence est un concept classificatoire […], l’écart est un concept exploratoire, à fonction heuristique. […] Si la différence est spécifiante, déterminante, l’écart, quant à lui, est inventif” (35). The rift then produces some in-betweenness, de l’entre: “la tension générée par l’écart engendre — produit — une fécondité” (37). In his book De l’intime, Jullien shows the same process is at work in intimate relationships, which he first defines as based on a paradoxical interplay of openness and withdrawal, d’entre et d’écart: “quand le retrait à l’intérieur de soi débouche sur la relation à l’Autre” (39). The rift becomes the necessary prime mover of intimacy, and Jullien implies the violence of the gesture that will guarantee an enduring relationship: “Il faut promouvoir de l’écart entre nous pour que de l’entre émerge et qu’on ait encore à partager. […] de sorte que soit barrée la route à l’assimilation, que l’Autre émerge à nouveau de son lointain et que je puisse le rencontrer” (244). One is also reminded here of the dissensus as envisaged by Jacques Rancière, who has extensively written on this other necessity for both politics and prose fiction to move away from and play with expectations so as to be productive of new forms (Rancière 66). Such connections between the ethical and the intimate—or even the political and the intimate—at the heart of both The Disappearance Boy and The Children Act, have always been considered by McEwan, as observed by Lynn Guyver: “the only political solution McEwan can ultimately come up with is the retreat into the consoling yet guilt-ridden space of the private sphere” (100).

3In these two examples of recent British fiction (2014), violence will first be deciphered in the “sensation of skin on skin” (McEwan 2014, 169) which calls for a necessary distance between characters but also subplots, so that both protagonists and literary works may become autonomous. I will then show that such salutary distance leads to an aesthetics of the rift without which the intimate connection remains threatened. Both novels work on the strategies of self-protection, for instance in the perhaps unethical possibility to be “unfaithful” to the event (Badiou 2011) in order to preserve oneself, but also to meet the other and accept interdependence thanks to the experience of the rift. Yet here, as will also be argued with the logic of postponement, distance builds up a new rift soon to be violently invested as the ideal space for illusion and what Bartlett calls “misdirection”, i.e. when the point for characters, performers or narrators is to mislead the other so as to hide the event but not its violence. I will eventually suggest that in both books the narrative space turns into a conflicting area for rivalry or negotiation, as the sentence eschews meaning, opts for contradiction and becomes a new textual form of rift between opposites. Equally questioned is the necessity of explanation—is writing akin to explaining, or should it not aim at pushing explanation aside, thereby locating readers and their expectations at the heart of its violent aesthetics of the rift?

From physical violence to the need for distance

4McEwan’s The Children Act tells the story of Fiona Maye, a High Court judge in the family court, and the consequences of one particular case on her intimate life already upset by her husband (with whom she has been married for thirty years) telling her that he wishes to have an affair with a younger woman. For Fiona the first consequence is the disruption in her natural, carefully planned daily life, and the text teems with situations where and expressions of how she needs to force herself to get back to her files and duties, or try and cope with her frustrated partner: “She made herself read a long paragraph” (16); “She forced herself back to her pages” (18); “she forced her attention on the submissions” (53). The first echo of violence in the plot has therefore much to do with forcing oneself to deal with unexpected situations and reconsider one’s positions: “Then she forced herself into a more accepting state of mind” (180).

5And yet, as we read in the first pages: “She had work to do […]. Her state of mind was not the issue. The problem was the choice her husband was making, the pressure he was now applying” (31). Here may lie the real violence, not so much the threat to fidelity and married bliss, but the mere fact of depending on someone else’s choices and decisions, precisely when Fiona’s occupation and function is to decide on others’ fates. The crisis she has to face in her intimate life throws into visibility the limits and hurdles of dependence at the heart of her occupation. This type of violence seems to echo the one McEwan interrogated in Enduring Love, where it stems from conflicting identities and relationships which leave the subject weakened and at a loss (Wells 73).

6Authority and abuse of authority characterise the first thematic traces of violence in The Children Act, as well as in Neil Bartlett’s The Disappearance Boy, whose eponymous hero, Reggie, is a young man that polio left with a limp and a small body that makes him the perfect “disappearance boy” in Mr Brookes’s magic acts. His job is to hide and contort himself so that the audience believes the glamorous female assistant really disappears. The trick is precisely to use violence off-stage, and to persuade the audience in a no less violent way that they can see everything: “A force, they call this bit—the trick of making you ignore all other explanations except the one the man in charge wants you to think about” (47).

7Force and authority may be narrative as well. Bartlett’s narrator cinematically “cuts” from one scene to the next, while resorting to words and literature to make the cut even more visible, radical and violent in its disruption. This he does for instance in the opening rescuing scene: “The pain is starting to tear at Mr Bridges’s sides now. His breath is drowned out by the rails. And now comes the whistle— / Cut. / And now the boy is in his arms” (6). Dry and “implacable” as the June weather in McEwan, the narrative pace here is as brutal as the way Mr Bridges’s boring life is split: “[the trains] run so close that they rattle his china, and their noise divides his solitary day into such regular parcels of time that he always knows when the next one is on its way” (5). Bartlett’s narrator, as usual, constantly steps in, sometimes in quite a domineering manner. On one and the same page, he interrupts the events “to explain”, as written twice, before a semicolon or a blank (28). Illusion and misdirection come to the fore one last time in his very final lines, no less devoid of violence: “The future, eh? / Here’s how it’s done;” (278). In The Children Act Fiona learns about Adam’s death a few pages before we do, while we see that some news is being passed on to her and understand how disturbed she becomes (McEwan 2014, 202). Readers are kept at bay and separated from the narrative flow.

  • 1 We are here reminded of the no less bloody kiss between Maurice and Clive in E. M. Forster’s Mauric (...)

8Even more obvious are the traces of physical violence and contortions in both novels, for instance in this other case at the end of The Children Act where “[t]he violence was consensual” (190)—when violence is shared and accepted as such, the text does not try to perform it but merely reports the consensus in a less hectic manner. This is also to be found in The Disappearance Boy, every time a new assistant has to be trained (“He told her to breathe out, and pushed her ribs in hard towards her spine as she did it” [Bartlett 2014, 87]), or when bruises and scrapes appear on her body after a couple of days (89)—or one night only with Brookes and his violent sexual fantasies (188). If Reggie’s own homosexual fantasies are less violent, when he almost literally bumps into a man in a cruising area, the moment is nothing if not violent, as the heated, animal kiss draws blood (219).1 The Children Act equally stages one surprising kiss—even to the protagonists themselves—,i.e. the one between Fiona and young Adam, the boy she saved from death a few months before by ruling against his and his parents’ decision to refuse blood transfusion, because they are Jehovah’s Witnesses, while Adam was dying of leukaemia. Adam survived, fell in love with Fiona and started stalking her, up to this unexpected kiss: “as she reached up and he stooped a little and their faces came close, he turned his head and their lips met. She could have drawn back, she could have stepped right away from him. Instead, she lingered, defenceless before the moment. The sensation of skin on skin obliterated any possibility of choice” (McEwan 2014, 169). No bleeding lips here—the violence is in the physical contact itself, preventing the subject from any physical move away and any autonomy. Here is the first violent symptom of physical contact, and the first reason why characters (and writing) will opt for a no less violent rift, so that choice can be made again. The Children Act teems with such equations between autonomy and separation. For a few days Fiona and her husband put up their twin grandnieces, who “were easy to tell apart” (McEwan 2014, 135), but “after the twins had been picked up, the rooms shrank back” (135). They could open up their stifling space, and such an opening is precisely what Fiona wishes for: “If there was to be a confrontation, which she didn’t want, not now, the kitchen was too confined a space” (126). Space is needed so that the rift and distance may become possible, and so that new forms of self-preservation may be granted.

Violent rifts for self-protection

9Distancing oneself and moving aside is first a way to protect oneself, as Jehovah’s Witnesses “keep their children apart as far as was possible from outsiders” (108). Fiona regularly builds up material yet fragile shelters around herself: “Spreading a few papers around where she sat was a form of protection” (126); “Clutching her briefcase against her stomach” (129). “[R]eluctant to be in a confined space with [her husband]” (143), Fiona wondered whether she could “remove herself from [him]” (6), and with Adam “[s]he was distancing herself” (163), in a logical stylistic collusion between the two main plots. Separation leads to salvation in The Children Act. This is so coherent that it is embedded by McEwan in the narrative of one of the most acute dilemmas Fiona ever had to deal with, that of the Siamese twins: “Separating the twins would be to kill Matthew. Not separating them would, by omission, kill both. The legal and moral space was tight” (27). Fiona eventually opted for the former decision, for separation, and has since been haunted by this tight “legal and moral space” she always has to work in. Still what emerges here is the necessity to split and separate to stay alive and preserve—or here create, indeed, relative autonomy. The same images are used in Adam’s case, for instance when he claims: “I’m my own man. I’m separate from my parents. Whatever my parents’ ideas are, I’m deciding for myself” (82).

10In The Disappearance Boy the same pattern is to be found in two striking passages, first when Reggie, only seconds after the kiss-and-blood moment, fiercely wants to elope but cannot see anything: “Throwing his arms in front of his face to protect it, he lurched recklessly into what he could only hope was space” (Bartlett 2014, 220). Hoping for space and dashing into the unknown is here paradoxically consonant with Reggie’s wish to stand aloof so as to be allowed to be himself: “Reggie had learnt how to squeeze himself and his unusual body away in the gaps in other people’s attention—and to be at home there” (32). In these two sentences everything converges towards the climactic end and the hope for space, whether it be stated as such or performed and actualised in the isolated postposition. Once more, the writing creates the rift so that new, individual spaces might emerge within it. The point is to assert oneself while going unnoticed, and the way to achieve this is to opt for the rift and plunging into either dark space for relief or the creases of the visible. The rift becomes a strategy for privacy and to be at one, so that identity be preserved and at the same time asserted. There is here a humanist, perhaps a teleological dimension emerging out of such violent rifts and in these narrative gaps that allow the individual to exist as such, and to act as they wish—in a much more complex pattern than with the false promises of autonomy and visibility, literature implies that only in the shadows of the rifts may the individual take shape and be completed. The teleological dimension of fiction is precisely linked to this possibility and such actualisation of potential identities.

11Conversely, when such movement is impossible in The Children Act, autonomy cannot be granted, and appears as mere fiction. In another case Fiona had to settle, an overprotective mother is described as “being unable to separate her own needs from the children’s” (McEwan 2014, 12). Denying the possibility of the rift here equals denying viability, “a denigration of her right to choose a purpose for herself” (12), while, as the text regularly repeats, “[t]he court must choose” (13). Such a refusal of separation is akin to an error resulting in failure, as with the Siamese twins: “A microscopic egg had failed to divide in time due to a failure somewhere along a chain of chemical events […]. Merely a gene transcribed in error” (30). On this aspect of the rift too the novel draws a parallel between public life and private life, since when her husband comes back to the flat Fiona wishes he had not been back so soon, disappointed as she is to have to face promiscuity and intimacy again, while the violence of the temporary break-up had granted her some independence (130). Yet the ethics of the novel points to a deceitful form of independence as a mere prelude to fruitful connection and interdependence. As observed by Peter Childs, for McEwan “the self is inherently social, formed inter-relationally” (Childs 29). More precisely here, the rift means being entitled to choose and decide for oneself. Fiona’s professional duty is always presented as such and as the creation of the other’s autonomy, yet another hint at action and teleology: “Above all, the duty of the court was to enable the children to come to adulthood and make their own decisions about the sort of life they wanted to lead” (38). To do so, she must first choose between two parties and two radically opposed decisions. This contaminates her speech but also the way she faces her intimate hurdles, the text abounding in phrases such as “I’ve decided that” or “It is my decision that”. Her professional activity is regularly associated either to protection and decision (“He must be protected from such a decision” [123]), or to distance (“Then the sensitively constructed distance between [her colleagues] that made her work possible would have been destroyed” [172]).

12Together with relative autonomy, one of the positive consequences of the rift in The Children Act is the possibility for opposites, even opposed extremes, to coexist and cohabit in interdependence. The choice is not always made, and contrary paths might be followed, as suggested by Éliane Escoubas in her work on Heidegger’s Entsprechung: “Non pas langue de l’opposition, de l’irréductible opposition, mais langue de l’écart — en tant que l’écart tient ensemble les deux versants dont il est l’écart. Langue de l’écart (ent-) : langue des écarts de langue” (Escoubas 233)—the rift, then, not only to separate extremes and make the choice or the decision easier, but the rift as a way to preserve the relative autonomy and the mere potentiality of opposites. As a means for preservation and coexistence, the rift here may remind us of the way Hannah Arendt defines violence as instrumental: “Violence is by nature instrumental; like all means, it always stands in need of guidance and justification through the end it pursues” (Arendt 53). Then Arendt expands on how science has defined violence as a natural means to self-preservation. Though she then qualifies her views, explaining how she distinguishes between power, strength, force, authority and violence, we may suggest that in McEwan’s novel the violence of the rift appears as such a means to self-preservation, but the better to connect with the other afterwards.

13This logic leading from separation to connection also informs the style of the books. “Entanglement” or “disentanglement”: The Children Act teems with both words and their polyptotons, always implying confusion and interdependence but also the violence of affect and in the reaction to rifts. McEwan’s writing abounds here in phrases which evoke distance and separation, for instance with “the spare room and its twin single beds” (McEwan 2014, 167), when “[s]he heard him suppress the surprise in his voice, steering cleanly between warmth and distance” (174), or again when Fiona is “at the furthest extremes of grief” (211) after being told the news of Adam’s death. The first page of the novel reads like a film script, with one bulky paragraph of short paratactic informative nominal clauses starting with: “London. Trinity term one week old. Implacable June weather. Fiona Maye, a High Court judge, at home on Sunday evening, supine on a chaise longue” (1). Separated or indeed interdependent, the various pieces of information eventually connect as much as they partake of the aesthetics of the rift on the page. What remains to be questioned are the logic behind the decision to distance oneself from events and the violence thereby created: to what extent do those new rifts lead to separation and ultimate connection?

Splitting away from events and the dangers of deferral

14When her husband tells Fiona about his wish to go playing around, she pictures for a moment the possibility to find another man, only to give up on it at once because of, “[f]inally, the necessary disentangling, the effort required to be open and sincere. And nothing quite the same when she came away” (6). The separation here is no way to preserve oneself, but is dreaded as the inevitable event that follows any first move towards someone: after love and promiscuity, the rift leads to too painful an event. As François Jullien explains: “il faut oser l’intime : oser, à la rencontre de l’Autre, ébranler le confort du quant-à-soi, se risquer dans cette aventure” (Jullien 2013, 138). This is precisely what Fiona will not do: “No, she preferred an imperfect existence, the one she had now” (McEwan 2014, 6). But avoiding the violence of the rift by protecting oneself from that of promiscuity does not mean that the violence of absence will be less acute: “This morning, waking with a cold part of a bed to her left—a form of amputation—she felt the first conventional ache of abandonment” (60). Here violence is created by the rift, and the pain comes from the impossibility to fill the gap and abolish the distance, as is also the case in The Disappearance Boy: “he crawled into bed with all his clothes on, and tried for nearly an hour to imagine the warmth of somebody else’s body in there with him, but the chill of all that foaming, tearing darkness seemed to have got right inside him, and he couldn’t do it” (Bartlett 2014, 155).

15In its aftermath the kiss between Fiona and Adam in The Children Act engages with the same issues. As quoted already: “She could have drawn back, she could have stepped right away from him. Instead, she lingered, defenceless before the moment. The sensation of skin on skin obliterated any possibility of choice. […] Time enough to feel in the softness of his lips that overlay their suppleness, all the years, all the life, that separated her from him” (McEwan 2014, 169). Therefore, the impossibility of moving away is only the first stage in Fiona’s self-revelation here. What it leads to is the awareness of another sort of distance, more moral perhaps but no less violent. In its tragic outcome, the kiss will also draw the two protagonists apart. Adam will indulge in some romantic fantasy, while Fiona will turn a blind eye to his letters and do her best to forget the moment. This is what I want to read as her unfaithfulness to the event. Splitting herself away from the kiss and its meanings, Fiona is bound to feel guilty and responsible for Adam’s death at the end of the novel. Violence is once more the sole consequence of the rift: “Yes, that kiss. It was her guilt that had kept her away.” (203) Drawing back from it, and precisely too late, then drawing back from its meaning, ended up in Adam’s death. If this kiss is an event, as claimed by Jullien (“un geste intime est ‘inouï’. […] [I]l constitue toujours, en tant que tel, un événement” [Jullien 2013, 47]), then what should be questioned are, in Alain Badiou’s terms, the protagonist’s faithfulness to it, and the subsequent violence. Jullien indeed continues: “[un geste intime] est même l’anticipateur de la liaison. […] Geste décisif s’il en est : cet événement qu’il crée, plus rien ne le referme et ne l’effacera” (47-48).

16Badiou’s ethics, as we know, posits that one should be faithful to the event so that truth might emerge: “Être fidèle à un événement, c’est se mouvoir dans la situation que cet événement a supplémenté, en pensant […] la situation ‘selon’ l’événement. Ce qui, bien entendu, […] contraint à inventer une nouvelle manière d’être et d’agir dans la situation” (Badiou 2011, 68). One should acknowledge the way the situation is then turned upside-down and take into account this new reality in one’s actions, behaviour and apprehension of the world. This Fiona fails to do, preferring as she does to forget about the event and split away from it. This is also what Brookes’s lady assistants eventually have the courage to do in The Disappearance Boy—however often repeated and rehearsed the act, the assistant either fails it or at the end literally disappears and runs away to London. We also know how Badiou connects faithfulness to the initial void that the event signals, names and fills up. He writes: “Le choix qui noue le sujet à la vérité est le choix de continuer à être. Fidélité à l’événement. Fidélité au vide” (Badiou 1998, 88). Concentrating on Samuel Beckett’s works, he studies the double logic of the rift, that separates but also connects, that draws apart but also allows, as we saw, for the coexistence of opposites (167). We may also think about the violence that Badiou constantly associates with his ethical patterns: “On dira que la vérité force des savoirs. Le verbe forcer indique que la puissance d’une vérité étant celle d’une rupture, c’est en violentant les savoirs établis et circulants qu’une vérité fait retour vers l’immédiat de la situation” (Badiou 2011, 102). This forçage, as he calls it in L’Être et l’événement, reminds us of how Hannah Arendt defines force as the natural, physical energy of things—in the novels under study, the natural force of the event is violently refused by the decision to be unfaithful to it and the dire consequences that follow.

17In The Children Act Adam has the crazy wish to come and live with Fiona (McEwan 2014, 166)—a desperate wish to close the gap and ignore the distance established by Fiona herself. The point in such an attempt is also to create and accept danger, striking a new balance between oneself and the other or, as is the case in The Disappearance Boy, within oneself: “his body is aching to catch up with his heart, and his heart to catch up with his body” (Bartlett 2014, 121). Here the original rift is as violent as the physical desire to heal it and find momentum. In Bartlett’s novel there can be no synchronicity between words and actions, or between experience and reasoning. This strategy of deferral, when “[t]his elaborate routine of threat and deferral happens four more times in a row” and “silence intensifies” (21), as another rift now more temporal in nature, must be read as belonging to Bartlett’s narrator’s illusions and misdirections. The opening scene of The Disappearance Boy is based on a complex pattern of distance, illusion and rifts. The eight-year-old Reggie is contemplating the idea of suicide when he is spotted by Mr Bridges on rail tracks: “the distant blurred dot of the engine is barely visible at the vanishing point of the converging rails. It seems to shake slightly, even to hover in the distance, but not to be getting any closer. Mr Bridges knows that this is just an illusion” (5). This clearly programmatic incipit sets the tone: illusion is in the distance, in the rift, while Mr Bridges also knows how to bridge the distance. He then runs to the boy, closes the gap and saves his life by rushing at him and wresting him away, the episode ending in a violent “sensation of skin on skin obliterat[ing] any possibility of choice”, as we read in McEwan’s novel (McEwan 2014, 169): “And now the boy is in his arms—under him, in fact; pinned down under him” (Bartlett 2014, 6). As recently developed by Guillaume Le Blanc in L’Insurrection des vies minuscules, Reggie belongs to those precarious, minuscule beings doomed to keep appearing and disappearing by fits and starts, to be always on the run and create magic and illusion (74). This is of course the gist of Mr Brookes’s acts, where illusion depends on misdirection: “what he does work hard to achieve, he makes you miss. Misdirection, it’s called; the art of leading your punters’ attention astray” (Bartlett 2014, 43). Therefore illusion comes from misdirection, in other words here the way one’s attention is once more led astray and deceived—yet another form of rift. The word “misdirection” recurs all through the book, not just for the magic acts but also Reggie’s more intimate quests (59, 264) or in the last chapter to draw readers out of illusion: “Well, there you are; misdirection, force, vanish, reveal and finesse. All you need to put together a whole routine” (275). Here too the text connects illusion and misdirection to force and violence.

18In The Children Act the narrative violence might equally be misdirecting us in the way the text fuses the intimate and the occupational plots, perhaps with a view to hiding what is really at stake for Fiona. This is also another example of cohabitation of opposites, as we saw earlier on. With the Siamese twins case, for instance, since Fiona remembers it as indeed the time when she and her husband last made love (McEwan 2014, 24): separating the twins to have one of them survive also meant separating herself from her husband, who now wants to survive in his own way. As the novel then makes clear: “she became squeamish about bodies, barely able to look at her own or Jack’s without feeling repelled” (30). Less obviously, though no less significantly, the text also juxtaposes whole paragraphs about Fiona’s cases and then her intimate struggles (3, 143), with no transition or even any hint at the correlation. Yet the structure derives from distance again: “Her attention remained divided between the page in her hand and, fifty feet away, the closed bedroom door” (16). This narrative structure is recurrent in McEwan’s work, for instance in On Chesil Beach, where intimacy always need be avoided, rekindled or completed by shifting away from it and for instance to politics.

19Wondering about the essence of Adam’s case, “[Fiona] didn’t think it could be both” (McEwan 2014, 91). Yet McEwan’s writing opts for contradictions and co-presence, as shown by this quotation: “A blend of desolation and outrage. Or longing and fury. She wanted him back, she never wanted to see him again” (92). Precisely, then, it can “be both”. There is no diminishing of distance or rift here, despite the immediate cohabitation in the sentence of the extremely opposed items being split away. On the contrary the rift remains but abolishes the necessity to choose, though in this other example, a chiasmic structure, decision is at the heart of the sentence: “The welfare of the child therefore dominates my decision, and I must decide what […] welfare dictates” (121). Elsewhere in The Children Act the exclusion of the other could not be more violent: “She was a long way from being reconciled” (128)—no reconciliation looming ahead indeed, as her husband is not even granted a place in the sentence itself. This echoes the many aposiopeses as another example of narrative exclusion and rift in Neil Bartlett’s writing (Bartlett 2014, 15). Nonetheless interdependence and connection lay the foundations for McEwan’s (and Bartlett’s) approaches of the way literature will bridge the rifts: “The confusion of the self and the other […] opens up for Ian McEwan the ethical dimension of literature” (Nicklas 9).

20The two novels under study display similar narrative strategies to perform an ethics of separation and interdependence through the motif of the rift. From physical and narrative forms of violence to the need for distance, The Children Act and The Disappearance Boy signal various modes of shifting or splitting away with a view to self-preservation through new ways of connecting with the other. The violence that is meant to be avoided by choosing distance leads to another form of violence created by the rift precisely in its unethical unfaithfulness to the event and to the other, but also in its promises of co-presence and cohabitation of extremes, which the texts sometimes perform through narrative rifts and misdirections. As we’ve known since Maurice Blanchot, the strategy of the rift is how literary writing proceeds: “manifester par l’éloignement qui est au centre de l’art, pouvoir qui semble écarter les choses pour les dire, les maintenir à l’écart pour qu’elles s’éclairent” (Blanchot 1998, 79). This Fiona also does, when distance in focalisation allows her to see the scene she was just part of differently, and realise how little it makes sense (McEwan 2014, 168). The narrative then becomes more detached and less in empathy with Adam. Ironically enough, it is in the next paragraph that the tragic kiss takes place, as if this visual and narrative rift were of no avail. At the beginning of The Disappearance Boy, when dealing with the protagonist’s early years, the narrator plays with various perspectives to introduce the now adult Reggie and shed light on his “oddly proportioned body […] to make him look oddly vulnerable” (Bartlett 2014, 12). In both novels writing and narrating are equally part of the aesthetics of the rift, with words dividing worlds and segregating people in Bartlett (81), words inseparable from one another for Fiona in The Children Act (McEwan 2014, 15), while when she plays Bach she always does “without failing to separate the voices” (44). Eventually writing is not explaining here, as both authors push explanation aside at the end of their novels. As seen above, Bartlett concludes with a last mystery and a final act of illusion. McEwan implies that Fiona’s splitting away from the kiss was no less illusory: “In memory, the actual contact, flesh on flesh, tended to extend in time” (McEwan 2014, 172). So that when she decides to tell her husband and thereby atone for “her part in [Adam’s] death” (213), she also wants to repeat and actualise distance in space: “He took a step away from the fire’s heart, or from her. She no longer cared” (209). While narrative rifts had so far been self-protection for them (“They kept away from the subject that might have destroyed them” [175]), the concluding pages merely pretend to go over the chronology of events (212). Rather, narration is a way to heal (as in Atonement), the way for Fiona to bridge the gap with her husband, and the end of writing. But at the same time the logical links and the explanation proper are now left aside and excluded, as the novel concludes before Fiona’s narrative and turns into a long introduction to confession and reparation. For Blanchot: “L’œuvre n’est pas l’unité amortie d’un repos. Elle est l’intimité et la violence de mouvements contraires qui ne se concilient jamais et qui ne s’apaisent pas” (Blanchot 1988, 300). If intimate narration is the end, in these two novels the rift surely is the writing mode, and violence, the means.

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Arendt, Hannah. On Violence. 1969. Orlando: Harcourt Brace, 1970. Print.

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Bartlett, Neil. Skin Lane. London: Serpent’s Tail, 2007. Print.

Bartlett, Neil. The Disappearance Boy. London: Bloomsbury, 2014. Print.

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McEwan, Ian. On Chesil Beach. 2007. London: Vintage, 2008. Print.

McEwan, Ian. The Children Act. London: Jonathan Cape, 2014. Print.

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1 We are here reminded of the no less bloody kiss between Maurice and Clive in E. M. Forster’s Maurice (113).

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Electronic reference

Laurent Mellet, « A Violent Need for Distance », Sillages critiques [Online], 22 | 2017, Online since 30 March 2017, connection on 23 September 2017. URL :

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About the author

Laurent Mellet

Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès (CAS EA801)
Laurent Mellet est Professeur de littérature et de cinéma britanniques à l’Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès. Il travaille sur la littérature britannique des XXe et XXIe siècles, les interactions entre idéologie politique et esthétique littéraire, la théorie filmique et l’adaptation. Au sein de l’équipe d’accueil CAS (EA 801), il dirige l’atelier de recherche ARTLab (études littéraires et culturelles britanniques) et est co-responsable d’un des trois nouveaux programmes de recherche de l’équipe, « Construction(s) de l’individu et du collectif ». Il est l’auteur de la première monographie sur l’écrivain britannique Jonathan Coe, publiée par les Presses Universitaires de la Sorbonne en 2015 (Jonathan Coe. Les politiques de l’intime). Avec Shannon Wells-Lassagne, il est le co-auteur de Étudier l’adaptation filmique. Cinéma anglais, cinéma américain (Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2010). Il a également écrit L’Œil et la voix dans les romans de E. M. Forster et leur adaptation cinématographique (Presses Universitaires de la Méditerranée, 2012), et a dirigé avec Sophie Aymes In and Out. Eccentricity in Britain (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012).
Laurent Mellet is Professor of British literature and film at the Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès (France). His research fields are 20th- and 21st-century British literature, interactions between political ideologies and literary aesthetics, film theory and adaptation. He is the head of ARTLab, the research group on British literary and cultural studies in Toulouse (research team CAS – EA 801), and also co-heads one of the three new research programmes of the CAS, “Constructing the individual and the collective”. He is the author of the first monograph on British novelist Jonathan Coe, published by Presses Universitaires de la Sorbonne in 2015 (Jonathan Coe. Les politiques de l’intime). He is the co-author with Shannon Wells-Lassagne of Étudier l’adaptation filmique. Cinéma anglais, cinéma américain (Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2010), the author of L’Œil et la voix dans les romans de E. M. Forster et leur adaptation cinématographique (Presses Universitaires de la Méditerranée, 2012), and the co-editor with Sophie Aymes of In and Out. Eccentricity in Britain (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012).

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